by Stephen Wagner

“Society wants to know if their food will always be accessible and sustainable,” said Russell Redding, Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture. “They want to understand the real threat of climate change. What will it mean if Pennsylvania becomes warmer and wetter? And will the lowering of our carbon footprint make a difference? In late 2020, the USDA released a survey of states with the youngest farmers, and Pennsylvania is first in the nation with the highest number of farmers under the age of 35 – not just here in the Northeast but anywhere else in the country.”

Redding was setting the stage for the quarterly appearance of Rick Roush, dean of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, and himself in a virtual town hall meeting.

“The thing that the college is most invested in is the future,” Roush said. “Every year we interact with about 3,000 undergraduate students and 450 graduate students. If we can influence those students in terms of vision and skills going forward, we can affect things for generations in a great multiplier of our own numbers. The majority of our students now are women – 57%. That says a lot about where ag sciences are going in the future.”

The first question asked was about the ag industry’s biggest un-met need. Redding answered, “The issue of workforce stands out. Dean Roush mentioned the ag impact study, and pre-COVID labor issues were high on the list. One of the other needs centers on economics. Ag is a business without walls. Access to markets, capital and labor are critical. Basic economics continue to drive our competitive standing as a state, for individual producers, whether its dairy, livestock, vegetables, whatever. They need a margin. If there’s no margin, there’s no mission.”

“We developed a plan for doing this,” Roush said when asked about dairy food processing and how funding might be used. “No specific funding has been offered yet. We are specifically looking to hire an assistant professor of food science who will have a 75% Extension appointment. And to also add a pilot plant specialist to support product development based here at University Park.”

Asked to comment on the open coding of milk, Redding posited that “the code for fluid milk was actually the number by implementation recommendations that came out of the Dairy Futures Commission. We do have legislation, Senate Bill 434, introduced by State Senator Elder Vogel, now awaiting second consideration. It’ll change that 17-day ‘sell by.’ It’s important to note that there will still be the requirement for processors to test their milk, so if they’re going to deviate from 17 days they will have to provide justification for changing that.”

What is PA doing to promote humane animal agriculture? “We have a long history of trying to maintain healthy, comfortable environments for the animals,” said Roush. “One measure of that is the national average for egg production is 270 eggs per hen. Pennsylvania averages 295. This reflects the fact that if the birds are in healthy environments they’re going to be more productive. So there’s an economic incentive to making animal welfare work.”

What is the PA Department of Agriculture doing to help farmers integrate with solar energy production? “There have been 40-plus seminars already on leasing land for solar development in Pennsylvania,” replied Roush. “The thought is trying to incorporate animal agriculture, that is grazing around the solar panels … Penn State has made a big investment in solar. My understanding is that Penn State students are involved with looking at what the environmental impacts were on farm sites. There are a lot of things we’re trying to do to research the whole range of questions about soil and how to integrate them into farm operations.”

How has COVID-19 impacted 4-H and how is the program moving forward? “It’s had a huge impact,” said Roush. “Instead of having 78,000 students involved in activities, we’re down to 70,000. Typically, students who were showing animals were impacted heavily. They were all pretty interested in getting out of that as quickly as possible. We’re interested in getting vaccinated and driving COVID out of the pandemic state.”

How is the virus affecting county fairs? “We want it to be a good fair season in 2021 – 103 of 108 fairs were cancelled last year,” Redding said. “We know the fabric the fair brings to the community. Then you have impacts like 4-H and FFA. We are anxious to have a fair season. I would encourage fairs to be planning for that. We do have current guidance; it continues to improve. The latest guidance allows for indoor gatherings of 25% without limits; we’ve got outdoor gatherings of 50% without limits. Clearly the fairs have to make their own decision; there’s no mandate that they must do it. If they want to do it, we want to be there. We have $4 million of investments in fairs to help them bridge to a better year. That means addressing masking, hand washing and spritzing with anti-germ hand sanitizers, which have become a part of our lives.”